Tuesday repost (comes early): ‘Gender in Toys’

I’ve got a computer in front of me so I thought why not just do the re-post today. I wrote this last June but given some of the feedback I got on the post about Barbie losing her make-up on Friday I thought this might fill in some gaps that hadn’t been discussed there. I’m not sure of the etiquette with a re-post but I’m a tinkerer so I’ll be doing a quick little edit of it too just to make sure I still agree with myself (if you know what I mean).

I recently read an article on the guardian’s web site by Charlie Brooker about the state of gender in the computer games industry (Brooker’s article). I have to admit I was less than impressed with the article itself as it failed to include anything about the portrayal of men but that’s besides the point, what it really started me thinking about was the more modern understanding of the way children ‘should’ play and what kinds of themes which we ‘should’ expose them to. Brooker’s article is a far cry from what this entry is all about, it just brought something to a head that I’ve been thinking about for a while.

I’ve worked in toy shops since I was about fourteen and back then (about 1997) there was a bemused puzzlement about what we should call the previously tagged ‘boys’ toys’ and ‘girls’ toys’ throughout the industry. The problem was that despite sizeable evidence to the contrary (sales numbers and the personal experience of shopkeepers) we were being told that it was politically incorrect to market certain toys more towards one gender than the other. Sections in shops became harder to lay out in a way that wouldn’t offend but we tried and we received no complaints so we figured things were fine. Here at Fun Junction we don’t explicitly label any section as ‘boy’s’ or ‘girl’s’ toys: for example we have ‘pretend play’ (incorporating dolls, cooking and other domestic toys), ‘transport’ (cars, trains and tractors) and we have a section with a mixture of castles, farms dolls houses and pirate ships. It works well and we like to think it helps discourage marginalisation whilst making it easy for people to find what they’re after.

girl doctorbaby stella boyI think the main issue behind the move to removing gender labels from toys was (and often still is) the idea that if a girl plays with a doll she’ll end up with only one career goal open to her (mother). You can see a little of what I think to this notion here. Little was said about the kind of expectation that was associated with some ‘boy’s toys’ like giving a child an army man as an example of ‘true’ masculinity or the heady expectation put on every boy by a football. In my childhood I received a number of footballs and I admit I did play with them but with no more enthusiasm than my little sister did (actually, if I’m honest I think she was more enthusiastic about them). In this lack of interest, a boy is instantly pegged as wimpy or at best different to the other boys. I’m not particularly bitter about this, to get bitter would be somewhat odd considering that this social pegging made me the man I am today, lacking a sporty focus I needed an interest so I learned guitar, got interested in music  and had a blast of a time in my teens.

However, back when I first started working in toys (back in 1997) it confused me that so much importance was being placed on the expectations associated with ‘girls’ toys’ and that next to no one seemed bothered by the rampant gender stereotyping of ‘boy’s toys’. Since then I’ve had time to think it through and look at the issue with a critical eye, recognising the historical context of the time I grew up as a time that parents and teachers were being encouraged to broaden the horizons of young women. I can see how difficult it would have been to revolutionise gender stereotypes for boys at the same time but I can’t help but wonder whether we might be able to squeeze it in with this next generation. If you want to tell girls that they can have a career and a family then someone will have to take up the slack at home and who better than the dad (we can’t all have nannies)? If you want dads that act like that when they’re adults you’ll need them to be a bit domesticated when they’re wee boys, so we’ll need toys that do that. The trouble is, without effort being made to enable boys to feel comfortable with dolls etc. we don’t stand a hope of getting boys to play with the more domestic types of toy. On top of this is another tricky issue: is it in our nature to favour certain types of toy?

back of the netThe truth is that the numbers don’t lie, my lack of interest in football makes me an exception to a rule, just as the little girl who plays with monster trucks is also ‘different’. The problem isn’t the gender stereotyping: it’s the loaded term ‘different’ that got (and often still gets) parents worried. We don’t want our kids to be seen as ‘different’ as it makes us aware of the social exclusion and other treatments that such a label might bring upon them. So what are we as parents supposed to do?

Fighting against gender stereotyping is a battle no one is going to win since the gender roles perform their function so well but do we have to always mark the line between these roles by appeal to the individual’s gender? There are good arguments to suggest that stereotypes find backing in the harsh reality of biology. A couple of recent studies (Kahlenberg and Wrangham, Current Biology Vol 20 No 24 and Hassett, Siebert and Wallenof Hormones and Behavior, 54 (2008) 359–364) studying the behaviour of chimpanzees (both wild and captive) has found that males prefer kinds of play which are either mock-aggressive in nature or which incorporates mechanism, females on the other hand have a tendency to mock-nurse a child and engage in other rituals associated with motherhood. The mechanism focus for males and child focus for females was actually shown in an episode of the BBC’s ‘Bang goes the theory’ this time looking at monkey behaviour (even more evolutionarily different, yet still exhibiting the same trend), I’ll add a video at the bottom of this post. In short, it would appear that in terms of nature vs. nurture, nature seems to have a massive role to play in toy preference. I’m not claiming that we can’t escape our biology, but given that in us human beings there’s a prevalent cross cultural preference in toy choice (even the nurture is geared towards  gender roles), we can’t escape the sheer brunt of this fact. The truth is it will be a hard task unless we can open up a social niche for ‘different’ children that the general populace is comfortable with.

lego-friends-laboratory bigSo what is my stance on gender stereotyping in toys? Well it’s complicated: I’m all for blue buggies for wee boys and for girls who play with Lego (Lego friends being a good example) as they play a massive role in de-marginalising loads of kids. I’m happy to admit that crossing the boundaries pegs a child as different, this is unavoidable since children by necessity will cling to simpler more digestible concepts than adults. Nonetheless, what I think we do need are toys (like those listed above) for those on the fringes which are still able to allow children to feel comfortable in their own skin. This doesn’t mean making all toys gender neutral: it has a lot more to do with toy companies taking time and effort to provide toys for genders which they are less than familiar with. Lego has done a remarkable job in this respect: I was never a fan of their previous attempt (‘Lego belville’) which was basically just pink lego blocks and pleased no one. Their new offering has clearly had a far more careful treatment of their target audience, it incorporates the same level of building challenge which you find in the standard ‘Lego city’ sets but it also presents girls with an array of characters with jobs and lifestyles which can allow them to play what you might call ‘girly’ games (often any play with a social dynamic seems to get pegged as ‘girly’) whilst enjoying building blocks.

But where are the toys for the boy who wants to cross the line? Aside from the blue buggies and dolls for boys (which I have to admit only seem to target the preschooler age group) there doesn’t seem to be the same careful treatment. For example, a boy who has an interest in owning a fashion doll will have to make do with Ken (basically a male Barbie) or pass over any every day activities which a man might enjoy and go straight to war toys like Action Man and G.I. Joe (toys which, as I have been told by older customers, were themselves met with mistrust by fathers in the 60s and 70s) and, what’s more, if the original interest for the boy was fashion then a war toy is straying pretty far away from that.

Boys simply can’t break gender lines as easily without loosing something; in order to enjoy an activity which is stereotypically ‘girly’ they have to deal with the prospect of being seen as more ‘girly’ themselves. Girls now don’t have to make such sacrifices, they can enjoy ‘boys’ toys’ yet remain girls thanks to innovations like those released by Lego. What’s more the term ‘tom boy’ typically only seems to be used by grandparents now. They can take on more traditionally ‘masculine’ activities whilst remaining feminine. Sadly boys often are seen to lose their masculinity as soon as they start playing with more ‘girly’ toys.

Gender toys, domestic toysSurely if we want men and women to understand each other better we should start by allowing not just girls but boys too to make forays into the other camp without sacrificing their own sense of gender identity. In fact this seems the best means of making for a more pleasant relationship between the sexes in the future. I like being a man, I liked being a boy, at no point did I wish otherwise but I did like the look of some of the toys which my sister and my cousin played with, I just wanted the toys to be less pink, and more structured (maybe with some flashing lights and sound effects to boot). To be honest I think most girls would welcome an escape from the barrage of pink also. What’s more, whilst my interests included a lot of ‘boy’s toys’ like Lego, model kits, transformers etc. my lack of interest in sport and my enjoyment of more sedentary/cerebral (‘bookish’)  activities always pegged me as different. On top of this I had a great interest in more domestic activities and I was aware from a very early age that I wanted to be a dad so I liked playing with baby dolls, though I outgrew this as I progressed through primary school I still sewed little outfits for my wee sister’s dolls (you can see what I think about the importance of exposing all children to ‘domestic’ toys here).

So what is my opinion about gender stereotyping in toys. In short there should be ‘girl’s toys’ and ‘boy’s toys’ (the alternative is a world of very confused children: children need solid concepts) but this shouldn’t prevent some cross over and, most importantly, the room we allow for this kind of cross-play could mean that far less children (girls and boys) would feel marginalised by the toys with which they are presented, and importantly this could promote greater understanding between the sexes.

When you think back to your childhood were there any times you wished you could make forays into the other camp? Did you make the leap and if so how did you find it? Perhaps you never really noticed a distinction. Whatever your impression I’d love to hear it. Thanks for reading, Cheers, John

As promised here’s the video from BBC’s ‘Bang goes the Theory’, start watching from 8:20 to see their take on the nature/nurture debate about gender:


3 comments on “Tuesday repost (comes early): ‘Gender in Toys’

  1. dayjess says:

    Interesting, but I really don’t agree that children need to be told that there are boys toys and girls toys. We are so thoroughly socialised when it comes to gender that it becomes hard to recognise it, but there are not two different kinds of toys, pink ones and blue ones, but lots of different kinds, which can quite easily be organised by type without reference to gender. I don’t think there is anything confusing about this. There are not just 2 types of personality. There are not just 2 ways to play.

    I spent a lot of time in the ‘other’ camp as a child, as does my daughter, but as you’ve said, this is more socially acceptable for a girl (though not always easy!). I want my son to be just as comfortable with the caring nurturing side of his personality (an aspect of masculinity he sees clearly in his Dad) as my daughter is with her wilder, more active nature. There just isn’t any need to create a binary split in this way.

    Boys and girls may be more likely to be drawn to particular kinds of toys (and that may be partly innate), but chances are that they will actually play with both, given the chance, and pretending there’s some kind of binary split (with ‘different’ kids who ‘cross boundaries’) just doesn’t reflect reality. My son likes cars, but he doesn’t like ONLY cars. He also likes sewing, Polly pockets, sparkly pens and lego. Just like me, his interests are not wholly dictated by his biology, and why should he trim them to fit? I think the Venn diagrams in this piece illustrate the point really well. http://ruminator.co.nz/pinkblue/

    Obviously toys are just one area of the bombardment of gender socialising that children receive, but I think telling children what sort of play is allowed for them is particularly mean aspect of it. And if it’s innate for boys to prefer one thing and girls another, then there’s no need to signpost it, is there? The girls (and their parents) will still find the dollies if they’re labelled ‘dolls’ instead of ‘girls’.


    • John says:

      Wrote a very long comment and then my kindle deleted it, so now on PC. OK here’s the gist (on the plus side my kindle probably saved you from a non-proofread rand).

      I completely understand the desire to hold back traditional gender stereotypes from kids and let them make their own decisions however we could lose something in this. My reasons for wanting to hold on to masculinity and femininity is a combination of 1) cultural evolution, 2) positive social behavoural paradigms and 3) cognitive simplicity.

      1) When masculinity and femininity work together with mutual respect the two of them join to make something greater than the sum of its parts. Your chromosomes needn’t play a role in which role you end up taking. One of the main problems is the loss of respect for each other and toys seem to me the perfect place to remedy this.

      2) I know it can look old fashioned to want to hold a door open for a lady (or any other gender stereotyped activity) but generally it turns into a perspective on the self that makes a man want to be helpful and contribute through wanting to be a gentleman. Being a gentleman makes you feel good about being caring whilst retaining an identity you feel comfortable with.

      3) Splitting identity in two (at least from the outset) makes it simpler to recognise how certain behaviours will be received. You can be wrong but the way western society is set up at the moment makes it very simple to make some initial assumptions.

      Learning about the world arround you is sometimes pretty confusing for a child and the main reason I think these paradigms are helpful is they give them a starting off point. No man has to demonstrate ‘true manliness’ and no woman has to demonstrate ‘true womanliness’ but the background cultural paradigms are helpful ways of learning a little about the human social world. It’s not perfect but like I said it’s a starting block and it needn’t be rigid and restrictive but its usefullness as a guiding point shouldn’t be overlooked either.

      This barely covers what I’d like to say about this and I apologise for putting together something that still feels a bit like a rant. Sincerest thanks for commenting here, it’s great to have someone add so much to the coversation, please don’t hesitate to pop along and comment again. For starters I’m not sure if I really addressed all the points in your comment so feel free to call me on that, Cheers, John


  2. […] However, the notion that we can’t fix things without the help of a professional has become mainstream and as a result I have little doubt that many children feel intimidated by toys that require them to use tools. So far I’ve been talking about the effect this depiction has on boys, there’s a reason for this: traditionally construction and repair were the domain of men and boys, it’s a role that boys still show a strong connection to in their choice of TV shows like ‘Bob the Builder’ and ‘Handy Manny’. These positive male role models give boys something to aspire to; they provide boys with a potential vocation which they feel a close connection to. However there is nothing inherent in the use of tools that excludes girls from playing. The debate about why girls typically choose pink, dolls, and fashion, and boys pick blue, construction and science toys rages on and my own perspective is hard to get a handle on in one post but I have tried in a previous post. […]


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